Recently a retired professor in Theology, who played a major role in helping to facilitate change in the church and society in South Africa, was honoured for his life work by the University of the Western Cape where he had taught and eventually also served as Vice Rector. Of the many things he did to contribute to a more reasonable and just society, he also was involved in the drafting of the much discussed Belhar confession, and he was the first chairperson of the Western Cape Peace Committee that was established to monitor and assist in the run-up to the 1994 elections. As part of the celebratory occasion a “Festschrift”, a compilation of articles and personal anecdotes, written by some of his colleagues, friends and former students, was offered to him.
On reading one of the articles in this Festschrift which analyses the main trends, characteristics and development of his theology I picked up something, which I had not realised before. In the course of his personal journey and struggle as a Reformed Christian who wanted to keep the faith even in difficult times, he had gradually begun to realise the importance of the mystical tradition. For me this came as a surprise because within the broader Reformed circles there has long been certain reservations if not outright scepticism towards mysticism, and especially to its claim that humans are able to unify with God and experience God’s love in a direct, almost virginal, way. Here however was somebody, a respected theologian who knew all the arguments, who surprisingly reminded us that perhaps, as Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, the mystics do matter after all.
Because I was curious and intrigued, I made an appointment for the following week - specifically to enquire about such a shift in his own theological journey and his own understanding of mysticism. His answer touched me deeply and although simple and straightforward it offered a profound insight. “In essence”, he said, “mysticism is about the very core of our Christian faith and that is the courage to surrender”.
To illustrate what he meant he picked up a book that was lying next to him and started to read from it. In this book titled “The Language of God”, one of the world’s leading scientists and a former atheist, Francois Collins, presents evidence he finds for believing in God; he also recounts in a moving way the decisive moment in his own life when he surrendered to the God of Christ. In his words: “A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ”.
Listening while my professor read this gripping account of God’s amazing grace breaking through in the life of such a man, I suddenly knew why the atheist viewpoint would never attract me. Apart from it being, in the Jungian James Hollis’s words “a posture of ignorance”, it also lacks the courage of true surrender. Because it is only by surrendering in faith, that we discover the living springs of God’s amazing love in our lives; so also do we experience our mystical bond with Christ. Louis Armstrong expressed something similar regarding the art of jazz: “Those who have to have it explained to them, will never know”.
We need to surrender to know. We need to love to understand. That is the constant challenge and invitation of the gospel, expressed so profoundly by the mystical tradition.
“Die Via Dolorosa” – ‘n Paasherinneringsdiens
11 years ago